Borderlands has always been a shared experience for me. I don’t think I’ve ever played a Borderlands game solo. They’ve been strictly co-op experiences—I started with Borderlands splitscreen on Xbox 360 in 2009, and I’ve played through each game in the series at least twice—including the Pre-Sequel– but always with a friend. In fact my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) was introduced to first-person shooters by playing the Borderlands series with me.
Borderlands 3 is an open-world first person shooter with an emphasis on loot. It boasts “millions” (or is it billions by now?) of guns. And this (sometimes wild) selection of firearms is a big draw for me. Borderlands 3 is serious about its guns, too. When I pick up a gun, I can have a general idea of what to expect from it based on the manufacturer alone. And that’s exactly how I feel about Borderlands as a series—I know what to expect. And I can say that held true for the gameplay of Borderlands 3–but some of its story beats managed to surprise me.
Borderlands (except for the Pre-Sequel) has traditionally taken place on Pandora—a hellish wasteland full of Mad Max style death and destruction on a planetary scale–a pretty perfect setting for a video game, really. Borderlands 3 takes place across a few different planets, and instead of hunting for one vault, you’ll be looking for several. Luckily (from a video game perspective) the disregard for human life exists everywhere you travel—especially since you’ll be hounded by the fanatical Children of the Vault as you hop from planet to planet.
And you do indeed hop between globes, fighting off the Calypso Twins—Sirens with the ability to sap powers, and the charismatic leaders of the Children of the Vault. I didn’t know if any villain would quite top Handsome Jack’s presence in the series, but Tyreen and Troy Calypso come pretty close.
They claim they are the rightful heirs to the Eridian Vaults, and whatever treasure lies within. And Tyreen and Troy make a good argument for that claim, always being a step ahead with their diabolical plans, and knowing how to use the vaults and their contents for themselves. They’re not after guns, though—they’re after godhood.
To get to the Calypso twins you’ll have to use one of four vault hunters to fight across Pandora and beyond. You can play as Amara, the Siren; Fl4k, the Beastmaster; Moze, the Gunner; and Zane, the Operative. Amara, the Siren this time around, has a lot of damage-forward skills, making her a little bit more direct-damage than previous Sirens. Fl4k has robotic pets he can call into battle as allies to help defeat enemies or buff Fl4k’s stats. Zane is an operative with a multitude of different skills, with his most fun being his double agent deployable that fires at enemies while drawing their fire. I spent most of my time with the Gunner, Moze, who uses her formidable mech suit Iron Bear to lay waste to her enemies.
Each character has three skill trees. Sometimes these skill trees can drastically alter the way you play a character. I’ve felt that some characters suffered from uninteresting skills in previous Borderlands games, but Borderlands 3 does a better job of making you feel like you’re getting a return on the skill points.
If you’ve played a Borderlands game before, there won’t be much in Borderlands 3 that surprises you both in story and gameplay. In fact, for better or worse, not much has even changed. Most of the faces you’d expect to see make a reappearance, with a few cameos from previously playable characters and fan favorite NPCs here and there, including those from Tales from the Borderlands. Without spoiling anything, the story is perhaps the most surprising. It didn’t entirely mature, but it has perhaps the most thought-out story of the series.
Borderlands 3 also features some pretty fun choices for NPC characters, voiced by an equally fun cast of voice actors. Ice T makes his debut in the series in a seriously funny role, as well as Chris Hardwick, and Penn and Teller, who not only voice characters based on themselves, but whose character models are based off of them directly as well. This, along with some of Borderlands 3’s standard silly pop culture references, really added some fun moments to the game.
The gameplay, like I said before, is about what you’d expect. You get an objective, and complete it while getting some sort of exposition over your comm-link as you drive there. Enemies die while screaming in agony, and often muttering some attempt at humor (nihilism permeates everything, from the combat to the characters). If you are downed in combat, you have a chance to revive yourself with second wind (if an ally doesn’t get you up first.) Borderlands 3 doesn’t shake things up much at all.
And while combat in the Borderlands series is okay, it’s never been the most fun. Borderlands 3 doesn’t do much to improve this. Enemies can feel like bullet sponges, and be annoying to kill. The combat never feels fluid, or spontaneous, either. Instead, you shuffle from one group of enemies to another, ocassionally fighting them off like waves in an arena. It doesn’t really get any more interesting than that.
That isn’t to say that fighting and shooting isn’t fun in Borderlands 3. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the fun you can have with Borderlands depends on the loot you find. Sometimes when you find that right set of guns, everything just clicks.
You can eventually hold up to four guns, but guns aren’t the only things available to kit-out your character. Class relics bestow extra skills, and Eridian artifacts give you sometimes powerful new buffs—like invulnerability when dropping below a certain amount of health (with a cooldown) or increased damage with certain weapons or elemental damage types. Grenade mods change the behavior of your grenades, and finding a particularly effective grenade mod can be just as fun as finding a new shiny gun to play with.
The open world environments in Borderlands 3 can be pretty big. Thankfully, catch-a-ride returns, and with it, vehicles that can be summoned to help you drive across whatever planet you’re on. But even with the new single-wheeled Cyclone, things haven’t changed much with the vehicles either. Again, if you’ve played a Borderlands game, you’ll know what to expect.
That’s not to say it’s all old news. Vehicle modifications had me excited for some new ways to blow stuff up in cars. There are parts for the vehicles that you can find hidden throughout the worlds that change the way they behave—but they feel like collectibles more so than anything that impacts gameplay too significantly.
Sanctuary III serves as your main base of operations in Borderlands 3, and I’m a sucker for spacecraft-based homebases. You can’t actually fly Sanctuary III, but you can direct it to orbit whatever planet you want—though you can fast travel to any planet regardless of the position of the ship. Sanctuary III has everything you need as a vault hunter—vendors, slot machines, and even a room you can customize.
Your character, as in previous Borderlands games, has a degree of customization. Skins and different “heads” are found through gameplay, and some can even be purchased on Sanctuary III with the purple Eridium currency. You can also change the color of these items, to add personal flair. Though there’s a good amount of choices built into the game already, we didn’t find the customizations as exciting as they had been in previous titles in the series, and feel like adding a few more choices would be welcome.
Borderlands 3 is more of the same. And if the same is already fun, then you can’t really go wrong. The most surprising aspect was the story—Borderlands feels like it grew up a tiny bit. Not much, but a tad.
Borderlands 3 is available now on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR